The writer’s contract

I’ve just finished reading a book with a maddening ending. It was a well-constructed mystery with quite a complicated storyline full of lots of twist and turns and I was really enjoying it until I came to the end and found that ALL the clues were essentially red herrings and that the truth was something entirely different.

I think that when you read a mystery you are entering into a kind of contract with the writer. They feed you clues (a few red herrings are ok) and you try to work out who the baddies are and why they committed the crime.

At the end of this book I felt like I’d been cheated. No-one was really who you thought they were, and everyone was lying except for the lead character who’d really just been duped by everyone else. I wouldn’t have guessed the ending in a million years (which is ok, I’m not a detective) but I like to be able to look back through the story and see that the clues were all there if you looked hard enough.

I won’t name the book as it got rave reviews and I admire and respect anyone who can actually write a whole book, but all the same, it was disappointing. I might read another book by the same author as I liked her style and the lead was pretty quirky and interesting. It could have just been me that missed the clues, but I really don’t think so…

By contrast, The Wife and the Widow by Christian White has a really satisfying ending which you don’t see coming (and I won’t give it away) but when you look back you can see that it all makes sense. I read a review that said you could see the ending a mile off, but me, I didn’t see it at all.

This got me wondering where the term “red herring” actually comes from. According to this article, red herrings (being very smelly) were commonly used to train animals (horses or dogs) to follow a scent, but the term was first used in a literary sense by the British journalist William Cobbett in an article about the press allowing itself to be misled by false information. I guess that would be called “false news” these days.

I don’t like too many red herrings in books unless they are explained later. It’s too easy to throw in random clues that have nothing to do with the storyline. I especially hate it when people are described as ‘suspicious’ and turn out to be perfectly normal. Why tell us that someone is suspicious if they aren’t? It’s breaking the writer’s contract. I expect the author to tell me the truth and keep their part of the bargain, otherwise I just get cross.

What about you? Is there anything that drives you crazy?

2 thoughts on “The writer’s contract

  1. I like your hypothesis of the writers contract. The question for me is when do i, the reader, know fully what the contract is? Before i start, 15% thro, further or at the end… if i dont get it clarified by 30% thro, i usually close the book… sound like you thought you had it figured out but got miffed at the end. Disappointing,.

    1. I think our expectations differ depending on the genre. With a mystery book my expectation is that the clues will make sense in retrospect and not be just a random scene that doesn’t serve any purpose. For example, there’s a scene in the book where the main character stumbles on another woman crying in a graveyard. The woman explains that she has worked out that this is where her brother has been buried even though the headstone doesn’t bear his name. At the end of the book you find out that although she has a brother, he isn’t dead, so why was she crying in the cemetery? It just didn’t make sense.

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